Welcome to another edition of Does It Look Like It’s Our First Time?, where we at Lewton Bus come to bond over all things James Bond. This week, Will and I come together to have a mostly harmonious point-counterpoint discussion of John Glen’s effort to pull Roger Moore’s James Bond into the 1980s, For Your Eyes Only.
Ryan: I really was knocked out by For Your Eyes Only. The entire film was like a pleasantly surprising meal, that just gets better as you keep eating, until you’re full of greek shark meat. It’s no secret I was not a huge fan of the preceding film (Moonraker), mainly owing to an overstuffed structure that was still somehow limp and boring, relying on a constant stream of exhausting gags and buttons. Knowing the film’s reputation among franchise fans (but remembering exactly none of the film), I found myself increasingly delighted by what I now consider John Glen’s best contribution to the series, and a progenitor to what works about the later entries in the Fast & The Furious franchise.
Will: I don’t know if I would describe myself as “knocked out”, but I would definitely agree that For Your Eyes Only is way, way better than it has any right to be. After two absolutely wretched tonal nightmare movies, one good film and one mixed bag (I actually do kinda like Moonraker in spite of its massive flaws), For Your Eyes Only’s stripped-down, tonally solid back-to-basics approach feels like a godsend. John Glen is the franchise workman, with none of his Bond films really being in the “best” or “worst” category, but I would also only describe one of them (A View to a Kill) as truly bad, and I think The Living Daylights is a strong candidate for the most underrated Bond of all time. And with For Your Eyes Only, he really set the stage for his run on the series.
Ryan: From the top of the cold open there’s a different tone at play. This could easily have been another rehash of The Spy Who Loved Me, complete with world-ending supervillains, half-baked gadgets, and endlessly corny gags. And while Glen does play with those expectations, as I’ll describe, the aim here is to fully balance the absurdity of Moonraker with the straight-ahead, pulpy thrills of Dr. No. A task which he accomplishes admirably. By beginning at the grave of Bond’s late wife Tracy, then ramping into a stuntacular helicopter battle with an unnamed megalomaniac, For Your Eyes Only lets you know right away that this is going to be a different sort of adventure.
Glen is feeling his oats and unafraid to give us a little of all the spices of Bond. It’s assured and bold to trust the audience to go along with it, rather than try to lean hard into one direction over the other, while ignoring the opposite aspects that have drawn fans to the franchise. In an underwater battle where Bond and Melina are being stalked by a scuba-monster, including the the Jaws music queue, everything from the action, to the editing, to the music is bang-on. This scene wraps up with sequence where a parrot reveals the key piece of the puzzle, and Q is dressed as a priest, but it all still works within the parameters the film has confidently established. After that we’re treated to a pretty accurate recreation of the scene from LIVE AND LET DIE (the book) where Bond and Melina are dragged over coral by Kristatos’ boat. This is actually one in a few scenes from this film where Bond is cut and bleeds. This reinforces not only the harder edged tone but the excellent balance at play, in that right afterward Bond sets up a spectacular and sort of silly revenge on the boat crewman who tied them up.
The way this one has it both ways without lingering on one tone too heavily is really well done, especially in my favorite scene: a chase where henchman Erich drives a prototype Judge Dredd Lawmaster snowbike after a skiing Roger Moore. While there is a real sense of danger and stakes, the more thrilling portions are punctuated by quickfire gags. This is by far the silliest portion of the film. The gags work due to their more measured implementation. Things like Bond hopping and skiing down a table while chased by bikes (ruining a patio hang) actually work due to pacing and restraint. It manages to build in action along with the silliness, apexing when Erich catches up to Bond, realizes his gun is bent, then throws it and his bike at Bond in frustration.
Will: As I said earlier, Glen’s real strength in what he brought to the series was his strong control of tone, and that’s very easily on display here. In an interview, Glen stated that he found the completely off-the-rails absurdity of Moonraker a step too far, and that Bond had to be taken back to his roots without losing sight of the humor and fun. I’d say in terms of this film, he unquestionably succeeded, with a film that actually has the trappings and feel of a true spy thriller (what with the reversals and espionage, something that actually isn’t the case with most Bonds), but also has the lightness and wit that Roger Moore’s era brings at its best.
I mean, this is a movie that simultaneously has a suspenseful, man-on-a-mission finale, but also, as you said, Ryan, has a scene where Q straight-up disguises himself as a priest. That the movie manages to balance those two seemingly wildly disparate elements is a testament to Glen’s (highly underrated) skill as a director.
However, there’s one thing Ryan said that I kind of need to disagree on, and that’s the cold open. In my mind, that’s the only time that the tone of the film really fails to remain balanced, and it’s a profoundly weird choice that feels far closer to the absurdity and fundamental disrespect for the audience that Guy Hamilton brought to earlier Moore entries. I mean, they basically use Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Bond’s badass archnemesis, and turn him into a cheap comic punchline. Even a massive failure like Spectre didn’t treat Blofeld like an out-and-out joke the way the cold open here does. The cold open is a major miscalculation (apparently done because they originally thought Moore wasn’t returning and felt the need to link a new Bond to the earlier incarnations, and then inexplicably kept it in the film once Moore signed on), but luckily, the film basically disregards it completely after the title sequence, and the delicate tonal balancing act that defines the rest of the film walks the tightest rope from there on out.
Ryan: Kristatos is a more small-scale villain than we’ve yet seen in a Bond film, in that he’s one corrupt guy trying to make some money off of selling espionage tech to the KGB. While his lesser ambition might come off as boring in an era where we’ve already had outsized threats, the way the story incorporates reveals through Kristatos’ villainous turn gives him a more subtle menace that, especially when juxtaposed with the sillier way the story pokes fun at “Blofeld” earlier, really works for me. The way that Kristatos (set up as an ally to MI6) sets Bond onto crime-lord Columbo when he is actually the double agent is just twisty enough to really work. Again, had Moonraker cared this much about structure it would have been so much more rewarding.
Speaking of Columbo, he’s the secret weapon of the film. He’s smart, indulgent, resourceful, and his admiration for Bond is endearing. He fits the role of ‘Bond’s local pal’, whose inclusion into the plot kicks off the fun and pulpy twists, a great fight on a boat between his forces and Kristatos’, and a truly great buddy-cop moment between he and Bond.
Will: I actually wasn’t crazy about Kristatos myself. He works fine in terms of his function within the narrative, but he’s mostly just kind of there in terms of threat/menace. He reminds me a bit in terms of his role in the plot of Greene in Quantum of Solace, an attempt to give Bond a slightly more real-world type villain that ultimately kind of results in an antagonist that feels truly different, but also kind of like a missed opportunity. Though I do agree that the twist revolving around him and Columbo really works, and is a nice attempt to bring some actual spy thriller tropes into the proceedings. I just wish Julian Glover (General Veers/Walter Donovan/Grand Maester Pycelle) had a bit more to do.
And yes, Columbo is pretty great. Not a lot of tropes get my engine running like “men-on-a-mission” type stuff, and his team-up with Bond to get Kristatos in the finale is truly thrilling, and is a climax unlike many of the Bond films before or after (only Skyfall really drops the scale in the same way). We could use more Bond films content to end this way.
Ryan: “Courage is no match for an unfriendly shoe, Countess.” – this is hands down the most thoughtful and restrained thing James Bond has ever said, and is indicative of a truly left-field turn in Roger Moore’s fifth outing. This Bond is courteous, friendly, responsible, dutiful, vengeful, thoughtful, and so decent my head spun. Bond hasn’t lost his sense of humor, but when it’s time for mission briefing, he’s down to business in a way that Moore has never really played. After a chance encounter with the new Bond girl Melina results in the death of the man he’s meant to question, he feels responsible that Gonzales is dead, but seems more interested in helpfully laying out a backup plan to chase his financiers than in disinterestedly shrugging and quipping about dongs. Moore is beginning to show his age, but is more engaged than in his last outing by a mile. And he brings a great balance of humor and menace. Even though this film shows Moore vengefully murdering henchman Locque, after the climactic fight in the mountains Bond destroys the Maguffin Kristatos agreed to sell to General Gogol, rather than take it back to England. “That’s detente, comrade.” Bond. Is. Making. Peace. With. The. Russians.
James Bond is not synonymous with a healthy relationship with women, but the fact that this Bond is understanding of Melina’s quest for revenge, warns her against the cost without trying to control her, and supports and trusts her is great. Bond comforting and reassuring Melina in Corfu is so genial. And this Bond is all about consent. After their triumph, Bond and Melina don’t even necessarily hook up. They go skinny dipping because that’s what she wanted to do.
Will: On this, Ryan, we agree one hundred percent. I love For Your Eyes Only’s Friendly Bond. The late Roger Moore’s take on the character in this film is easily the nicest, most genial version of the character ever. He says “please” and “thank you”. He excuses himself when knocking stuff over in a flower shop. This Bond is cool with looking kinda silly in ski gear (Hell, the entire “Bond goes to an Italian ski resort sequence” is basically the Bond version of an 80s teen sports comedy. He fights a bunch of hockey players/bullies in an ice rink!), and he honestly seems like he’s genuinely having fun a lot of the time. He’s kind and supportive to Melina, and trusts her to be able to make decisions on her own, only throwing advice her way. I kinda want to hang out and shoot the shit with this Bond, something I can’t say about pretty much any other version of the character.
And yes, Moore is beginning to show his age, but if anything, his age only makes him more endearing. His interactions with Bibi are certainly weird as hell, but they’re also honestly kind of sweet. He acts like a kindly, considerate mentor to this somewhat unruly girl, gently rebuffing her affections and attempting to genuinely steer her in the right direction.
The Spy Who Loved Me remains Moore’s best film, but I’d argue For Your Eyes Only easily contains his best performance of the series. His natural affability shines through in every frame.
The Bond Girl
Ryan: Melina is one of the more interesting “out for revenge” Bond girls and I honestly enjoyed her a lot more than even Agent XXX in The Spy Who Loved Me. Their rapport during the car chase through the Corfu countryside is wonderful. I’m not sure why there’s so many people speaking Spanish in Corfu but watching Melina laugh at one of Moore’s corny jokes as they rocket through the winding roads is very endearing. I also enjoy her proclivity for crossbows and talent for murder. The scene approaching Kristatos’ mountain retreat is tense and exciting. Bond, Melina, and Columbo’s men must work together to invade the lair, all of them contributing to the success of the mission and trusting each other to get the job done.
Will: I have mixed feelings on Melina. On the one hand, Carole Bouquet has a truly unique, interesting screen presence (her acting is iffy, but she’s got charisma to spare), and I do very much enjoy that the movie gives Melina plenty of agency, with Bond never forcing her to do anything, only using his greater range of experience to attempt to point her in the right direction. Even better, the movie lets her take an active role in the finale when it would’ve been so easy to simply make her a damsel to be saved. Bond doesn’t babysit her during the climax, either, trusting her to hold her own every step of the way. She earned that. On the other hand, I don’t think Moore and Bouquet have a ton of chemistry, and I actually thought Bond worked better for Melina as an ally/partner than as a true romantic interest. The movie would’ve succeeded even more admirably if it refrained from giving Bond his “reward” with Melina at the end. Bond and XXX remains Moore’s best romantic coupling.
Ryan: This is where this film really suffers. Sheena Easton showing up to sing over the credits is a snooze. This score during action scenes is a crime, though. It’s like Bill Conti went on tour with the Shakedown Street era Grateful Dead. It somehow manages to make everything more dated than the disco score for The Spy Who Loved Me and the truly awful credits version of Moonraker. Moving into the 1980s really bursts the seams. It’s a shame considering the quieter scenes and transitions feature some very nice music. Conti is a guy who has to be put to use correctly to work well. It’s hard to modulate him or use him in situations that aren’t just right, and I am really not a fan of his work here.
Will: Okay, so I can’t fully defend the score here. It’s undeniably goofy as hell, and it doesn’t have much of the DNA of what composers like David Arnold, John Barry and Thomas Newman have done to bring out the musical best of the franchise. On the other hand, I do kinda enjoy the admittedly goofy Sheena Easton title song, and its melody really is incorporated quite well into the larger body of the score. Also, Bill Conti’s music isn’t much like the franchise at its best, but I truly do appreciate his attempts to do something different, and it has an undeniable cheesy 80s appeal going for it that I find hard to resist.
This is one of those instances in the Bond franchise where new elements gel with established ones to create a unique and interesting mixture. Somehow the supposed relaunch of a new Bond era gives us one of Moore’s best films, and easily one of the better entries in the franchise. For Your Eyes Only paves the path the franchise will take for the next decade, though none of the entries in the remainder of Glen’s run ever quite reach the heights that this entry does, or achieve quite the same balance achieved here.